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MIT students are warned that hacks have limits

Causing a little mayhem is acceptable, but breaking the law is not, a top MIT official warned students in a campuswide e-mail yesterday after a series of high-profile pranks gone awry. The same goes for endangering yourself or acting irresponsibly in the process.

Since last school year, students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made headlines after breaking into the school's Faculty Club and allegedly dumping sodium metal in the Charles River. Some students said the acts were done in the spirit of the school's long-chronicled tradition known as hacking, MIT-speak for harmless pranks (not the theft of computer records.)

"Historically, hacks have been creatively and thoughtfully executed without injury, destruction of property, or public notoriety for the hackers or MIT," Phillip Clay, the school's chancellor, said in the e-mail.

Clay cited references to the hacking code, which is on display for all to see in the Stata Center, a campus building. "True hackers quickly identify themselves when they encounter the police, and they do not confront or evade the police," he wrote in the e-mail. "Hackers do not create public hazards."

Clay said his letter, written in consultation with a student and faculty committee on hacking that began meeting last spring, will be followed up in a few weeks with stronger language and clearer rules in the student handbook about the prankster practice.

"What I'm trying to do is remind them of what hacking is," Clay said in a telephone interview. "I tried to define it for newbies."

While he did not mention specific incidents in his letter, Clay said in an interview that the break-in to the Faculty Club last fall prompted the review of the university's response to the hijinks. Three students were charged with breaking and entering, though the charges were dropped, with the school's backing. The students said they were practicing the hacking tradition of late-night exploration, but the university said they crossed a line.

While focusing on hacking, Clay also included a warning not to practice another university tradition, a hazing ritual in which upperclassmen have forced freshmen to take cold showers before their first test. He also emphasized integrity in academic and other areas, advising students not to download copyrighted music and videos and not to plagiarize information for their classwork.

In light of several recent events that have drawn negative publicity - including the arrest of an MIT student who wore a suspicious-looking electronic gadget to Logan airport - the university had to send a message to students, said Christopher Fematt, a senior and a member of MIT's Interfraternity Council executive board.

"A lot of these things, I felt like I'm being lectured to by a mom," Fematt said. "I still think some students need to be reminded of some things."

Joy Dunn, also a senior, praised Clay's emphasis on representing the university responsibly and with integrity. "This is part of going to MIT," Dunn said. "We came to MIT because of its reputation."

The letter did not mention consequences.

Martin Holmes, the Undergraduate Association president, said Clay had taken the right approach by establishing the principles that students should follow for hacking.

"The chancellor's letter did a perfect job of achieving a delicate balance between protecting hacking and striving toward safety and responsibility," Holmes said.

Sometimes, a prank may spark admiration, such as trasforming the John Harvard statue at Harvard into Master Chief from the Halo 3 video game. Other times, Holmes said, "it may be the subject of criticism or warnings on things not to do."

Linda Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.

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